By Sarah Bruchhausen
In eastern emaMpondweni in the former Transkei Bantustan there were uprisings in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Known to many of its protagonists as the mountain movement, it has been recognised as the foremost instance of apartheid-era rural resistance in South African history. Thousands of people participated in a meeting on Ngquza Hill, popularly known as Ngquza Mountain, near the town of Flagstaff on 6 June 1960. Apartheid security forces attacked them, killing at least 11 people and injuring many more.
Although focused on state attempts to regulate agricultural and other practices, the Mpondo revolts were part of a broader wave of major protests, including the marches in Langa and Sharpeville in March 1960, both of which also ended in state massacres. But, unlike these urban protests that have taken on an iconic form in official national memory, academics and public commentators seldom invoke the Mpondo revolts as historical events through which to understand contemporary protests and state violence in South Africa. This was evident in the early academic writing about the massacre at Marikana in August 2012. Connections to Sharpeville were drawn almost immediately, but it was a long while before the empirical and political links between the actors and repertoires of struggle at Marikana and those associated with the Mpondo revolts were noted.
Of the 44 people who were killed at Marikana during the strikes, 31 were migrant workers from the Eastern Cape. The Eastern Cape, and emaMpondweni specifically, has been a primary source of cheap labour for mining in South Africa since the opening of the first gold mines on the Witwatersrand in the late 1800s. Men from emaMpondweni historically dominated rock drilling, the most dangerous and labour-intensive part of mining minerals like gold and now platinum.
Rock-drill operators initially led and organised the Marikana strike. Later, workers from across the mining occupational categories joined them, as did residents of eNkanini shack settlement. The men gathered on what has been termed “the koppie” in the media but that protesters referred to as eNtabeni, the mountain. While on the mountain, women from eNkanini settlement gave them vital support.
Grassroots activists immediately understood the significance of this. Soon after the men went to the mountain, Mnikelo Ndabankulu, a leader in Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban with roots in Flagstaff, phoned his comrades from the mountain so that they could listen to a song that had been composed during the Mpondo revolts and sung on Ngquza Hill.
One thread in the many connections between the Mpondo revolts and the wildcat strike at Marikana more than 50 years later is the way in which popular resistance gathered on mountains. They became sites of resistance and spaces for participatory and egalitarian forms of politics to be conducted at a distance from the state and, at Marikana, the ruling party and its allied union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
It is significant that most of the rock-drill operators who were at the centre of the strike at Marikana were migrant workers from emaMpondweni aged between 45 and 55 years old. In many cases their parents and older relatives were involved in the mountain movement in emaMpondweni.
The politics of the mountains
The idea that mountains are sacred has ancient roots and endures in various ways. The practice of meeting on mountains is documented from the early years of the 1900s in the former Transkei. From there it was carried all over the country by migrants but, most significantly, to the mines on the East Rand.
In South Africa, the radical tradition of rural resistance that migrant workers carried into the mines associated the space of the mountain with a collective and egalitarian politics, a type of politics opposed to autocratic and elitist rule. This organic and horizontal mode of politics places emphasis on the popular meeting as the most important site of political thought and action. There is a well-documented and an overarching commitment to participatory modes of collective and consensus decision-making processes. Spokespeople rather than leaders are elected.
This article was first published by New Frame.